(CNN)You might think that when a trafficking victim escapes, their life is saved. In reality, though, survival is much more complicated.
My journey of survival began nearly 20 years ago, and continues to this day.
It is marked by hurdles, as well as by surprising gifts like losing my sight, discovering art and receiving life-changing, holistic, trauma-informed care. It has also been marked by our nation’s failure to call trafficking what it is: a public health problem.
Road to recovery
Just last week, the State Department released the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which ranks countries based on whether and how well they are addressing modern slavery. While now is a prime time to talk about the survivor’s journey to recover from the horror of being held captive physically and emotionally, this key issue will likely be left out of most conversations.
Instead, most discussions will focus on law enforcement issues like how well countries, including the United States, track down and prosecute traffickers, and how to use threat of prosecution as a deterrent.
While law enforcement is important, so is providing adequate support for trafficking victims’ recovery. And, in that regard, we are failing. We are failing because we have not identified human trafficking as the public health issue it is. You see, trafficking is not a short-term affliction—it affects a survivor’s whole life, families and even entire communities.
That failure has negatively affected my life (and the lives of countless others) time and again, while I was repeatedly trafficked as a young child, and in the years since becoming physically free from trauma. The primary failure occurred during my ordeal. Though I often visited the doctor for numerous unexplained, very grown-up health problems, not one asked whether I was being abused.
Later, I struggled with the physical and psychological wounds resulting from more than a decade of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of my trafficker.
Blindness was just one of the costs. I have also struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an eating disorder, peripheral neuropathy and adrenal insufficiency. While I eventually received beneficial health services, it was largely because of my blindness.
Reemerging into the world
For example, blindness brought me Junebug, my guide dog for the blind. Even after I was technically “free” from my trafficking situation, PTSD left me feeling incredibly anxious and unsafe in public.
After losing my eyesight, I felt even more vulnerable, and didn’t want to leave my house. The trusting bond I developed with Junebug changed my life, and allowed me to reemerge into the world.
My blindness also brought me to Louisville, Kentucky, where I could access tremendous health and psychological services that the government provides for vision-impaired people. I didn’t realize until recently how truly fortunate I am to have ended up here.
I have been receiving therapy from a professional trained in trauma-informed care for the first time. Trauma-informed caregivers are trained to understand, recognize and respond to the effects of all types of trauma and help survivors heal physical, psychological and emotional wounds, and rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.
Most other trafficking survivors do not receive even a fraction of the critical support and care I’ve received, but looking at trafficking through a public health lens could change that.
Later this year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is planning to launch training courses for health care and social services providers. SOAR (Stop. Observe. Ask. Respond to Human Trafficking) is designed to educate professionals on how to recognize and respond to human trafficking in a health care or social services setting.